Wednesday, July 30, 2014

'Do border surges work?' For incumbent pols, but not really the rest of us

The Austin Statesman on Sunday published an extended investigative piece on Texas' beefed up border security efforts and posed the simple but controversial question: "Do border surges work?" The article tracks several themes examined on Grits earlier this month about the lack of articulable goals or success metrics for an expensive, open-ended deployment which now includes not just Texas DPS but 1,000 National Guard troops, all of which so far is being paid for, un-budgeted, out of the state's general fund.

Government claims victory both when seizures go up and down, making the metric meaningless for evaluating whether taxpayer money is well spent funding "surge" efforts. The authors attempt to apply a normative analysis based on the facts and interests at stake and concluded there's little evidence Texas boondoggle border surges are helping the problems they're ostensibly aimed at resolving. All these troopers and soldiers arrive at the border with no obvious jurisdiction or meaningful role to play.

Still, the bottom line answer to "Do border surges work" is "Yes," though not for the reasons one might think. Certainly they're not thwarting illegal immigration, drug smuggling, nor maximizing the state's bang for the buck fighting crime. But those expectations misunderstand what's really going on with this latest round or border security spending.

Like its predecessors dating back to Operation Linebacker, recent surges by state and local law enforcement, much less by the National Guard, are nothing more nor less than expensive political theater. Border surges "work" not to reduce crime at the border but to allow Texas pols to claim they're "doing something" about the illegal immigration since Obama won't fix the problem. Never mind that their actions also won't fix the problem and may worsen it. Or that state leaders have prioritized a politicized "surge" over road maintenance. Or that a purely martial response ignores the real and immediate humanitarian crisis facing children from Central America who're piling up like kindling in Texas-based detention facilities. The meme plays well to portions of the GOP base and in the near term, to win an election, ginning  up the base matters a lot more than the truth. As long as that dynamic holds, we'll see more border surges because incumbent politicians have seen they "work,"  at least for purposes of political expediency, though not because they make us one iota safer.

What would it mean for border security to really "work"? Grits has argued in the past that any new border security funding should go first to pay for expanded Internal Affairs capacity (or maybe some sort of anti-corruption unit) to rein in bribery and collusion with drug runners among border law enforcement that contributes to the chronic, intransigent nature of the problem. Just paying overtime for more vehicle patrols, in the end, won't accomplish much.

Meanwhile, Politifact took on questions about a purported crime wave by "criminal aliens" touted by Attorney General Greg Abbott and Governor Rick Perry to support the border crackdown. I'm not a fan of Politifact. I think their only two ratings with any real meaning are "True" and "Pants on Fire." But lo and behold, they gave a "Pants on Fire" rating to Gen. Abbott for asserting that about 3,000 murders in Texas could be attributed to lax border security, calling the claim "incorrect and ridiculous." They also gave a "Pants on Fire " rating to Gov. Perry for similar overstatements a couple of weeks prior for claiming a phony Mexican murder wave. Of course, in the real world immigrants - legal and undocumented alike - commit crimes at very low rates compared to American citizens. But one wouldn't want to let facts interfere with one's opinions, so instead we must witness the disgraceful spectacle of the state's top politicians bearing false witness to pander to the nativist wing of the GOP base.

Another, accompanying article from AP posed the question: "Lawmakers: Is beefed up border security worth it?" with the additional National Guard troops announced while I was out of town (in Mexico City, ironically), Texas is now spending $4.3 million per week out of un-budgeted general revenue to support DPS' and the National Guards' expanded presence, perhaps indefinitely. That's nearly a quarter-billion dollars per year if it goes on that long. I know people have short memories, but those who can recall at least back to the George W. Bush governorship should understand why sending soldiers to the border is as likely to end tragically as to improve things. 

Increasingly I wonder if much of the extra hype we're seeing about the border from state leaders isn't intended as a pre-emptive counter to House Speaker Joe Straus' stated desire to stop spending state highway money on DPS and spend it on roads and transportation instead. By getting him to commit to this extra spending before session even begins and Straus can appoint a new budget chair (Adios, Jim Pitts!), the Speaker seems to have been outmaneuvered, ensuring money from the state highway fund will continue to be siphoned to DPS, perhaps even in increased amounts. Col. McCraw and his allies knew better than to let a crisis go to waste and seized on the humanitarian plight of Central American kids to justify proposing a much more militarized southern border.

That's my best guess as to the larger chess match being played here, with all the overheated border security rhetoric that's dominated the public debate a convenient smokescreen for DPS and its allies hoping to stave off budget cuts if their highway money goes kaput. Now it's the Speaker's move. He can acquiesce, or insist after some respectable interlude that DPS prioritize and cut other spending in its budget to cover the cost. That'd be a Hail Mary, though. He'd need a strong Republican Senate ally (or a governor with line-item veto power) to pull himself out of the corner he's been backed into.

Regardless, that to me seems like the Speaker's only option, besides giving up his quixotic push to spend highway funds on highways before it ever properly got off the ground.


JJ said...

Perry's kids do have an agenda. This entails instigating a crisis designed to infuriate conservatives (even more) through hostile action somewhere along that border. Sounds silly but they are desperate for some gun play and heroic efforts. You have to remember, Perry will run in 2016, so he needs a rallying cry to galvanize support.

Anonymous said...

JJ is correct, H. L. Mencken said "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Perry is a practical politician.

Anonymous said...

It's a waste of money. Start asking for IDs to get in schools, apartments, Wic, to buy a car, bus ticket or get a job. That's the only thing that will slow it. I'm for immigration when you wait your turn.